Former soap opera actor has new calling
HARTINGTON — If Cedar County residents thought they saw a familiar face in town here last week, there was a very good reason for it.
Actor Frank Runyeon brought dramatic interpretations of the Gospel of Luke and the Sermon on the Mount to Holy Trinity Catholic Church recently as part of a two-night Lenten mission organized by the church.
Holy Trinity was one of the most recent stops on a tour that began in the early 1990s and has taken Runyeon to 40 states and more than 2,000 churches.
But before Runyeon began speaking and performing in churches across America, he was a mainstay of television — especially soap operas — in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
One of his best-known roles was as Steve Andropolous on “As the World Turns” from 1981 to 1986, where his on-screen wife, Betsy, was played by Meg Ryan. Runyeon also worked with Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei and Steven Weber when he was on the show.
“They were all good, but everybody was young,” Runyeon said. “Early on, Steve Weber was on there and Julianne Moore (too) — and you could tell they were really good. Marisa Tomei was young but cute and fun. Of course, they just all really grew in their acting technique. We all did. You’re just starting out. Meg had had almost no training at that point. It takes time and you learn.”
Runyeon described the 1980s as a “great age of soaps.”
“Kevin Bacon was on ‘Guiding Light’ at the time,” Runyeon said. “There were a lot of people — John Stamos was doing (’General Hospital’). There were just a lot of people who people got to know later. It was fun working with them. Some guys were clearly really talented right from the get-go, but most of us had to learn by getting out and doing it.”
After leaving “As the World Turns,” Runyeon played Michael Donnelly on “Santa Barbara” from 1988 to 1991. However, not long after leaving that show, Runyeon said some “tough things” in his life — including the suicide of his college roommate — made him look in a more faith-based direction and ultimately led him to his current calling.
Runyeon’s desire for his children to understand the Bible and the importance of faith were also a major factor in his transition from television actor to Biblical storyteller.
“My kids were getting a little bit older and they weren’t really understanding church, so for all those reason I started to focus more on the story in church and how I might explain it to my kids,” Runyeon said. “I had to dig down a little bit deeper than the usual eighth-grade faith that most of us go through life with.
“I started telling the stories to my kids and they said, ‘Well you should tell the story like that in church’ — then my pastor said ‘Why don’t you do it for us?’ That’s how it started. It was just something I was doing on the side.”
Runyeon’s roots as a storyteller go back before his acting days and even before his time as a religion major at Princeton University in the 1970s.
“Growing up, you see those famous movies — ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and so on,” Runyeon said. “It was always helpful for me (when I was) a kid. I’d like to watch those movies. In Holy Week, they’d play them and it was good — it got me focused. (I was) like ‘Oh I get it, I get the story.’ ”
In 1977, Runyeon saw British actor Alec McGowan perform the Gospel of Mark on Broadway. It planted a seed that came to fruition many years later.
“I thought that was an interesting project and I thought it was good, but it was more of a recitation — it wasn’t dramatic,” Runyeon said of McGowan’s performance. “I just wondered what if you could do it more dramatically?”
Runyeon later attended seminary and began to study the New Testament in its original Greek, an experience he compared to looking at the original music that Ludwig von Beethoven wrote, rather than a watered-down version.
“I noticed all sorts of things that we don’t hear anymore — that is that, in the original Greek, it’s often in the present tense,” Runyeon said. “That tells the story much better. I could say, ‘I went to New York,’ past tense, last week, ‘I walked into a deli,’ past tense, ‘and this priest comes in’ — and you don’t even notice that I switched into the present tense, because it sounds normal. That’s the way it is in the New Testament, but nobody knows that because they don’t translate it that way.”
Runyeon cited the Gospel of Mark as an example of dramatic storytelling in the New Testament.
“The Gospel of Mark is organized exactly like a Greco-Roman drama of the time in five acts — and in the middle of the third act is when they’d always say, ‘Behold, it’s Zeus among us!’ ” Runyeon said. “Dead center of the Gospel of Mark is when Peter says, ‘You’re the Messiah.’ They were literally using the form of drama with the very first gospel of the church. It made me think, well there’s something to work on — let’s see how much drama we can bring to this.”
When he spoke at Holy Trinity, Runyeon also contrasted the American media’s portrayal of success and happiness with how the Bible defines them.
“We, as Americans, are really brought up listening to stories all the time,” Runyeon said. “We don’t realize that (in) the stories we listen to, we start to see the story of our own life as being in that picture. We just have to be careful what stories we move to the center.”